Maurizio Bettini’s In Praise of Polytheism is a thought-provoking new book on what ancient polytheistic religions can teach us about building inclusive and equitable futures.
At the heart of this book is a simple comparison: monotheistic religions are exclusive, whereas ancient polytheistic religions are inclusive. Maurizio Bettini, one of today’s foremost classicists, uses the expansiveness of ancient polytheism to shine a bright light on a darker corner of our modern times.
It can be easy to see ancient religions as inferior, less free, and remote from shared visions of an inclusive world. But, as Bettini deftly shows, many ancient practices tended to produce results aligned with contemporary progressive values, like pluralism and diversity. In Praise of Polytheism does not chastise the modern world or blame monotheism for our woes but rather shows in clear, sharp prose how much we can learn from ancient religions, underscoring the limitations of how we view the world and ourselves today.
Maurizio Bettini is Professor of Classical Philology at the University of Siena, where he is Director of the Center for the Anthropology of the Ancient World. He is author of more than twenty scholarly books and five novels, including winners of the Prix Bristol des Lumières and the Premio Letterario Mondello.
Read an excerpt from the Introduction of In Praise of Polytheism below. Visit our SCS 2023 virtual exhibit page to get 40% off the book for a limited time.
It’s fairly uncommon to page through a book of philosophy without coming across at least one quotation by Plato. This is true not only for academic or scholarly works dedicated to ancient philosophy, but for philosophical writings in general. Philosophers are always conversing with Plato. In the same way, people interested in semiotics read Aristotle, alongside the works of Charles S. Pierce, and St. Augustine too. And even popular books about democracy (a critical topic these days), often find inspiration, for better or for worse, in the Greek forms of democracy, especially the one from Athens. I mention these facts in order to defend a rather obvious thesis: classical antiquity is not just a popular topic for professional classicists or students working their way through the consecutio temporum; it constitutes a source of inspiration, a living source, for contemporary cultural production.
This is clearly true in other fields spanning across literature (from Seamus Heaney to Derek Walcott), the visual arts (the numerous ancient works “re-envisioned” by contemporary artists), theater (new productions of Greek tragedies are often genuine rewritings), up to the tenth muse of cinema. Even though the ancients will never know anything about it, they have been for the moderns the muses for whom they searched. I can safely claim that just as happened in the past—in the Middle Ages, in the Renaissance, and in the Age of Enlightenment or in the 1900s—Greek and Roman cultural creations remain relevant, and continue to provide food for thought for today’s culture. It is not my intention here to discuss how and to what extent this classical presence is still alive in the contemporary world, and even less to compare our times to those of the past. This is not my aim. I simply want to highlight how classical philosophy, politics, literature, art, and theater (that is, the vast majority of their cultural produc- tion) stay relevant not only as objects of study for Greek and Roman scholars, but how they interact daily with contemporary culture. And religion? Can we say the same about the many religions of classical antiquity? Do they play a similar role today?
These questions may sound bizarre, since according to conventional wisdom, religion is not considered a form of cultural production comparable to theater or art. Religion gives the impression of being “something else.” We really should know better, though, when we are discussing civilizations—especially the ancient ones—in which sculpture was intended to provide religious imagery, poetry was often construed as an offering to the gods on a par with material sacrifice, rituals were regularly accompanied by music and song, and ceremonies were carried out in buildings whose architecture is still admired today. And this doesn’t even begin to take into consideration that a large part of what we call classical literature could be categorized as stories about gods and heroes, and thus—from a certain point of view—as works of a “religious” character. There is no question, therefore, that religion in the ancient world was a legitimate cultural product; moreover, it was a locus in which multiple cultural forms were interlaced. The fact that religion is a fully cultural construct is fairly evident: if it weren’t, its practices and organization would not have changed so radically from one era to another, from one continent to another, or from one nation to another. Why, then, does ancient religion remain tightly closed behind the doors of university departments (those few in which it is still taught, incidentally) and provide material for scholarly conferences, yet never seems to interact with contemporary culture to the same degree as theater or philosophy?
The answer is predictable enough: because Christianity has, since its beginnings, gradually positioned itself against ancient religions, relegating them to the territory of falsehood and error. . . .
The reflections that follow will explore what ancient polytheism, and in particular Roman polytheism, could offer our society today, not in terms of aesthetics or philosophy, literature or psychology, but in terms of concrete experience, both individual and collective, simultaneously political and social. This is the principle that has both guided me through my studies and represented their purpose: bringing to light the repressed potential of polytheism, providing a space in which its way of constructing a relationship with the divine could furnish answers to some of the problems for which monotheistic religions—as we know them in and through the Western world—cannot find a solution, or which are created directly by monotheism itself. Taking examples that come mostly from the Roman religion, I have thus chosen to focus on the aspects of polytheism that, if they were assimilated by our societies, could help alleviate one of the many evils that continues to afflict us: religious conflict, and alongside this, that variegated specter of hostility, blame, and indifference that still today blinds “our” eyes toward “their” gods. . . .
In my opinion, if we truly seek the cash-value that polytheism can offer us today, we can find it especially in how it constructs a relationship with the gods of others. From this point of view ancient polytheism found its inspiration in ways of thinking decidedly different from those pertaining to monotheism. Throughout this study, then, I will move forward by comparing the polytheistic ways of thinking with those of monotheism along the lines of the different reactions (and different results) produced every time they react to the conundrum represented by other people’s gods. . . .
So now, diis iuvantibus, as the Romans would say: “may the gods help us.”